The Art and Necessity of Pre-Design
There are four main things that an architect should do for your project to avoid wasted time, wasted money, and expensive, aggravating delays.
My name is Daniel Clarke, and I provide education, tools and resources and advice for people who who want to investigate what it is like to live in a climate-resilient ultra high-performance "Legend" home.
Almost all architects I know will want to start generating ideas and sketching very early in a project. Maybe you have some ideas that you'd like to share, or some buildings you've seen that you really love and want to use as inspiration or reference for concept development. You will want them to start sketching, but don't let them do it - I'll tell you why.
I've seen exactly the same problem on projects from $50,000 to $50M - for shopping centre developers, multifamily developers, and individual homeowners alike. I'm going to use the single-family homeowner as an example, but remember that this is a universal problem.
The problem is inadequate upfront research, homework, and strategy. Homeowners and developers all want to start design NOT KNOWING that they’ve skipped crucial checks that will bite them in the butt later with delays, extra costs, or big disappointments. Every architect will have at least some sort of discussion with the owner about the spaces they need, what aesthetic they like, and what their budget is; the architect will typically check basic municipal zoning regulations... and then start sketching.
I understand why everyone wants to start drawing right away. Drawings help you see clearly what are otherwise nebulous or partially-formed ideas and dreams, they are a way of manifesting your thoughts into something tangible that everyone can analyze and re-shape, they show (to the client and to others) progress of the project that justifies the money that you're spending on consultant fees, and they are useful (sometimes invaluable) for taking to the bank for a construction loan or potential commercial tenants or investors.
I assure you, though: it's the wrong time to start drawing. I could get my 4-year-old to draw something, and it's likely to be about as useful. The bank may appreciate her handiwork about as much as my wife appreciates me letting our daughter draw with Sharpie permanent markers, but it has equal merit to the project's design. With all due respect to my fellow architects and to this noble profession, it is unguided doodling.
No architect is an all-knowing mind-reader; without due diligence and investigation, a significant amount of what is drawn is ASSUMPTIONS and GUESSWORK. For any building, the consequence of inadequate upfront research into one’s needs and the available, suitable options is like building a house on bad foundations. The foundations are the most important part of the whole house because everything is built on top. It’s very expensive to change the foundations once you have started to build on top of them, but it’s far easier and comparatively inexpensive to change them if they are simply lines on a plan. The foundations of any project are what you and your architect need to establish FIRST.
Additionally, on a Passive House or any other super high-performance building, it’s very expensive adding Passive House requirements to a project if it’s already partway through design. What some owners – and architects – do is try to make a project ultra high-performance at some point after starting concept drawings or layout plans – and then everyone complains about how much extra Passive House or Net Zero costs. The key aspects are already baked in, and some opportunities already lost. On the other hand, it costs nothing to make certain decisions on the design even before you’re drawing lines on paper.
The four things your architect needs to do completely and clearly before designing are:
determine the project constraints,
determine the desired outcome,
determine the available resources, and
develop a strategy that will drive the project's design.
I'm sure that anyone designing a house touches upon each of the first three to some degree - how big will the city let you build, how many bedrooms and what shape of kitchen, and what's your budget. With some architects, those are in fact their FIRST questions. Knowing just that, we could design for you a box that satisfies all those. Many architects will charge on an hourly basis, exploring ideas until you've settled on a schematic design and then roll it into a fixed fee that captures the rest of the work - at least what they're anticipating they'll have to do.
What if, though, the architect develops some designs and after spending $20k on fees still doesn't incorporate what you wanted? (True story.) What if you are expecting 3D renderings but get just two-dimensional drawings? Or maybe a Craftsman-style house... except that you like modern. Or maybe a modern style house... but you meant the 'other' kind of modern. Maybe you're partway through design, and the architect turns up a regulation that requires significant redesign? (Another true story.) Your architect develops a design, and you find that the construction cost is WAY more than you planned. Let's say construction begins, and your builder discovers that there's a utility right-of-way that you can't build into. Or halfway through construction, you notice that some of the ceiling is much lower because of ducts that had to run there. Or whenever you have more than a few people over to visit like at your housewarming, it gets WAY too hot inside. Or after a couple years in the house find that it feels a bit cold or sterile - never truly cozy. You would have deleted the guest ensuite if you knew it would have bought you a nice big view window from the master bedroom. Or in your autumn years are confined to a wheelchair and aren't able to enjoy a big portion of your home.
How about instead we find out from you how you want to FEEL in your new house? Is it a sanctuary? A base of operations? Party central? Hub for the extended family? How many people, what will they be doing? What about WHY you like certain styles? Is it the shapes? The layouts? The materials? What do you intend for your house's future? Will it be handed down to the kids? Will they move in when you need some extra care? Are you planning to sell the house later - to downsize or to upgrade or just to turn a profit? Have you been somewhere on vacation and wanted to re-create some of that experience in your home? What are your expectations for service from your architect? These things matter far more.
There are many technical constraints that designers prefer not to get bogged down by in the beginning or to leave for the builder to run across. How much sunlight does your site get? Are there any protected trees or endangered species? Likely contaminated soil? Does the site flood every spring? Do you want to design for wildfire resistance? There are also regulatory items that could bring either design or construction to a halt, like specific bylaws that force you to change your plans at the eleventh hour - or later. How about available or upcoming incentives or city development plans that would affect what you choose to build now?
What I do is spend a LOT more time on the research, requirements gathering, and strategy than other firms who are running with their clients into conceptual design at a very early stage. Since this is a LOOOOT of information to dig up, sort through, and digest, I have a detailed process. I have developed a three-stage pre- and early-design sequence that looks into basically all the parameters - yours, the city's, the site's - and then develop a strategy with you that will drive the design. Everyone and anyone over the course of the project can reference it to check what needs to happen and why.
The first step is my Pre-Design Diagnostic Scan™. The scan touches upon all the things that will or could play a role in the design. It's like a feasibility check - a scouting mission to determine constraints, check for opportunities, and get you to think about things you might not have considered or known about. I visit the site, we meet, we talk, I go away to do some research, and then I give you a report. If you feel good, step 2 is my R.A.D. Study™ - research, analysis, diagnosis. It's an in-depth study of every area the pre-design diagnostic had a cursory glance at, creates your "program" and your "design brief", and also determines a scope of service and what my fee would be to design the project. If you're comfortable with everything you see, step 3 is a series of three calibration sessions that I call the Tuning Workshop™ in which you and I determine how to make everything we've pulled up - the constraints, your desired outcome, and the available resources - all fit together beautifully.
If you are planning to build or to do a major renovation, and you want to avoid costly surprises and disappointment, please book a Diagnostic Session using the button below, and we can make arrangements to start your Pre-Design Diagnostic Scan™.